Set on the antebellum southern frontier, this book uses the history of two counties in Florida's panhandle to tell the story of the migrations, disruptions, and settlements that made the plantation South.
Soon after the United States acquired Florida from Spain in 1821, migrants from older southern states began settling the land that became Jackson and Leon Counties. Slaves, torn from family and community, were forced to carve plantations from the woods of Middle Florida, while planters and less wealthy white men battled over the social, political, and economic institutions of their new society.
Conflict between white men became full-scale crisis in the 1840s, but when sectional conflict seemed to threaten slavery, the whites of Middle Florida found common ground. In politics and everyday encounters, they enshrined the ideal of white male equality--and black inequality. To mask their painful memories of crisis, the planter elite told themselves that their society had been transplanted from older states without conflict. But this myth of an "Old," changeless South only papered over the struggles that transformed slave society in the course of its expansion. In fact, that myth continues to shroud from our view the plantation frontier, the very engine of conflict that had led to the myth's creation.
Suggestive and original, this book is alive with colorful people, their voices, and a rich sense of social and political life.
From the Publisher
"Baptist . . . is the type of capable historian who can write about the detailed social aspects of a complex time while also placing the overall political scene into proper framework. . . . He has done a masterful job of presenting rare insight into a neglected area of antebellum studies and, really, a neglected area of Floridian history. . . . A superb account of Middle Florida."
— North Florida News Daily
Suggestive and original, this book is alive with colorful people, their voices, and a rich sense of social and political life. (Steven M. Stowe, author of Intimacy and Power in the Old South: Ritual in the Lives of the Planters)
In 1827, Virginian John Parkhill bid farewell to his wife and his two-year-old son George and journeyed south to look for land. In his diary, Parkhill wrote, "I left Richmond in Virginia the evening of 15 April 1827 in company with William Copland [his brother-in-law] with the view of visiting in Florida, examin[ing] the land & purchase if found of superior quality & the situation healthy." Riding stagecoaches south, the two men reached Augusta, Georgia, where Parkhill and Copland had to purchase horses for the rest of the trip, since no stage ran to the Tallahassee region. As they crossed Georgia, the whole Upper South seemed to be on the move. In Augusta, they had "put up at the Eagle Tavern kept by a Mr. Kennedy from Hanover, Virginia." Later they encountered a Dr. Jones, a planter from Halifax County, North Carolina, on his way to his new lands in Jackson County. Parkhill found a sort of comfort in the familiar origins of other elite settlers, but he also noted that now he saw them in a new physical environment. Through southern Georgia, he continually noted the kinds of soil and the types of trees, but found little of promise in the land itself until they reached Middle Florida. There, the soil looked fertile, and the weather was also quite promising—mild, but not yet too warm for Parkhill. In northern Leon County, they met a recent migrant "born in Southampton County, Virginia." Good soil, good weather, and the presence of other migrants from Virginia and North Carolina all confirmed the positive reports Parkhill had heard of Middle Florida. After looking around for a few days, Parkhill bought 480 acres and headed back to Virginia to collect his family, including brother Samuel Parkhill, and his slaves. Samuel purchased land near John's plantation, Tuscawilla, on "Black Creek" ten miles east of Tallahassee. William Copland also returned with slaves, and settled near the Parkhill brothers.
At about the same time a much less wealthy and much older man named Isaac Hay was making his own long journey to Leon County. With the help of son Reubin, who had come up from his own small farm in Leon to Washington County, Georgia, Hay gathered his meager belongings and loaded them on a rickety cart pulled by a broken-down horse. Perhaps Isaac took one last look at the pine-covered, barren tract that he was abandoning. While passing through the same "piney range," Parkhill had written that "in consequence of it being poor, there are but few settlers, and those generally poor with no negroes." Those of Hay's neighbors who had tried to work better soil had already left, unable to purchase the land where they squatted before speculators snapped it up at government land auctions. Hay's own journey south had begun twoscore years earlier in North Carolina, and he was still "poor with no negroes" and had little or no land to call his own. The much younger Parkhill brought slaves, money, and prestigious possessions when his wagons creaked over the Florida border into Leon County. The aged Hay's cart still held only the spare tools of a poor white man: a homemade grindstone and a set of coopering implements, all valued at $7.50.
Men and women like John Parkhill brought to Middle Florida resources and agendas different from those more like Hay. The distance between these groups, a contrast in wealth, power, and even basic rights to citizenship that had emerged from the crucible of the colonial South, became more contested during the Revolution and the new republic. Although the exact dividing line between planter and nonplanter whites is always difficult to draw, clearly the distance between the circumstances of Parkhill and Hay made all the difference in the world. Men who owned ten or fewer slaves—particularly those who, like Hay, owned none—had to work with their hands. But men who owned more than ten slaves, especially those who, like Parkhill, owned many more, did not have to spend day after day toiling under the hot sun. They had the time to dream bigger dreams, especially about the plantation frontier's "peculiar benefits." They also had the power—or so, with good reason, they believed—to shape the reality of migration south and west along the rough lines of their visions.
Migration to Florida, like movement to other states and territories of the plantation frontier, held out to Parkhill and his peers the possibilities of fertile land, staple crops, and profits to be made, especially when compared to those offered by their old states. Wealthy men in the Chesapeake and the Carolinas coveted the soil and the warm weather of Florida, which seemingly provided a perfect climate for export crops like cotton and sugar. At the same time, most educated white men feared the frontier's dark side, at least a little. There, reports had it, disease spread like a metaphor for the social and cultural environment, and society regressed to a barbaric stage: planters' control over slaves slipped; lesser whites turned saucy. Even their own civilized self-restraint risked peril in regions that produced not natural aristocrats but "hot-blooded fellows," scrambling for control over resources. Such climates made "rascals . . . like maggots they seem to flourish most in putrid masses—and the farther south one gets the more plenty they are." Yet powerful desires drew planter and merchant men to brave their fears and turn their faces south and west.
"The Most Valuable Southern Country"
The settlers who left the most information about their movement to Middle Florida were wealthy ones like John Parkhill. But that fact has not made it easy to understand or agree on who or what they and other Southern planters were. Many historians have depicted this class as a pseudo-aristocratic group shaped by the fact of slaveownership. Supposedly, anticapitalistic dynamics of master-slave interactions made the system of plantation slavery into a premodern method of labor control. That, in turn, allegedly produced white men and women defiantly opposed to modern economics and culture. Southern planters were, however, a part of the capitalist world-system. They directed, in fact, what was at times its most profitable and important producing sector. If plantations were not themselves strictly capitalist enterprises, they were certainly enterprises shaped by Atlantic capitalism. And slavery in the United States—whether as a social relationship between individuals or as an economic institution that relied upon worldwide markets for its products—was in the midst of rapid change during the first half of the nineteenth century. As Yankee society changed under the pressures of commercial and technical intensification, wealthy men in the Chesapeake and Carolinas moved south and west in the 1820s and 1830s, expanding, intensifying, and transforming Southern agriculture, and reshaping the Southern ruling class.
When they discussed the possibility of moving to Middle Florida, planters emphasized migration's dual benefits for commerce and family. To Southeastern planters, the frontier of the Southwest offered a cluster of qualities—land, climate, and openness to slavery—valuable because planters could convert them into cash crops. "In time," wrote one early migrant to Middle Florida, "[this will] become an important Southern slaveholding state—producing as its staples, cotton, sugar, rice, and fruit." Yet despite the modernizing effects of long-distance trade, and the potentially individualizing effects of movement to far-off places, planters did not seize the frontier's commercial opportunities as isolated, profit-maximizing individuals. Even as they focused on the importance of creating wealth through production of staples for the world market, Southern slaveowners like John Parkhill relied heavily upon bonds of kinship.
Among planters from the seaboard states, who would supply the majority of Middle Florida's elite, family ties shaped personal identity. And instead of dissolving kinship, migration to the plantation frontier accentuated and reinforced the ties of family and extended family. Many planters moved to Middle Florida for the specific purpose of helping to maintain or acquire honor, wealth, and political sinecures for family members. While the experience of mastery over large numbers of enslaved African Americans shaped white men and women in deep and subtle ways, the explicit defense of slavery, and of themselves as a slaveholding class, was not yet foremost in planters' conscious minds. In the 1820s and 1830s, elite men and women moving to Florida spoke about their concern for supporting their families, rather than about the need to expand the system of slavery in order to save it from abolitionist pressure. They turned toward Middle Florida because it, like other frontiers of the Old Southwest, seemed to promise the wealth and power of planter families' dreams.
The peninsula's geographic position on the flank of the plantation South fascinated Southern writers, like one who stated in 1830, "Florida has always been a subject of lively interest in the United States, both before and since it came into our possession." Prospective emigrants in Maryland, Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia learned of the area through a variety of channels: from private letters, oral reports, local newspapers, national journals, and books. Accounts of Florida began to appear in national publications like the Washington newspaper Niles' Register as early as 1817. By 1823, at least four authors had contributed their descriptions of the new American territory to the growing trans-Atlantic book market. Early accounts mentioned only the East and West Florida regions, but soon prospective settlers began to hear of the fertile region in between the two. In the early 1820s, surveyor John Lee Williams produced a series of newspaper articles that described the area of fertile soil that stretched from the Apalachicola Valley to the Suwannee. He ventured his opinion that the small trading post at St. Marks "will even be the principal port of this section of land."
Writers, travelers, and readers imagined a geography for Middle Florida, mapping it as the best of possible worlds for planters who wanted to "remove" from the older Southern states. Unlike earlier settlers in the West Florida parishes of Louisiana, or the slaveowners even then moving to Texas, they would not have to lead local revolutions to force colonial powers to surrender the territory to American planters. In contrast to Missouri, there would be no congressional challenge to the legality of slavery in Florida, where Spanish, English, American, and Native American settlers had long claimed mastery over enslaved people. And unlike many parts of Missouri or Arkansas, lengthy growing seasons and excellent soil characterized Middle Florida: "These trees [around Tallahassee] are a proof of the vigour of the soil. . . . It possesses an inexhaustible fertility." Alluvial areas along the rivers promised to be as fertile as the Mississippi Delta. Just like migrants to Mississippi or Alabama, Middle Florida settlers could grow cotton. In fact, the earliest pioneers were supposedly already raising prodigious quantities on the new soil, under the sun of the long growing season. A Leon County correspondent reported in 1826 that "Cotton was as high as my head on horseback."
Florida was all that Mississippi, Alabama, or other Southwestern states could be for the restless planter, and perhaps even more. The subtropical climate imagined for Middle Florida permitted dreams of two additional crops that only increased the area's already potent allure. Writers noted the sandy patches that dotted the soil of the inland districts of the counties around Tallahassee but also argued that this seeming drawback was one of Middle Florida's more attractive qualities. Sand and heat created an ideal environment for the long-staple, or sea-island, cotton plant. This form of cotton commanded prices several times that of the ordinary short-staple varieties. Textile manufacturers used its long, silky fibers for "superfine" cloths, but before the settlement of Florida, this variety thrived only along the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia. After 1821, pioneer planters reported early yields of five to seven hundred pounds per acre of sea-island cotton. Thus they held out to ambitious planters the allure of a crop hitherto reserved for low-country aristocrats.
Even more significantly, Middle Florida's climate appeared to permit the cultivation of sugar cane. Sugar was, in the words of one Middle Florida settler, a "higher game," played for deeper stakes than cotton. Planters in Virginia or the Carolinas knew tobacco and cotton and the rewards, and failures, those crops could offer, but sugar promised something far greater. Migrants' fascination with the sweet staple underscored their interest in becoming a part of a world of trade, commerce, and power that transcended regional and even national boundaries. Would-be settlers eagerly consumed claims made by the Tallahassee Floridian that cane planted in Leon County hammocks or Jackson County's floodplains would produce "equal if not superior to the best Mississippi [River] bottoms" in Louisiana. The article, which was copied in the national press, reported that "We have now in our office ten stalks of sugar cane, raised on the plantation of Dr. Weedon, the produce of a single joint, weighing fifty and a half pounds."
Stories about Florida sugar aroused potential migrants' economic calculations to fantasies of the Caribbean model of planter power, wealth, and ease. Jamaica planters were still among the richest men in the British Empire, and in the previous century they had symbolized colonial power. Thus, like Virginian Francis Eppes, many men moving to Middle Florida planned to "begin life anew as a sugar planter." Leon County's Thomas Brown sunk $20,000 in his sugar works, while Jackson County settlers also invested heavily in the dream of sweetness and power. In the fall of 1829, Latimus and Marcus Armistead, Virginians who operated a merchant house at Aspalaga on the lower Chattahoochee River, sold sugar boilers to planters Richard Holmes, Peter W. Gautier Sr., T. Watson, and Sextus Camp.
The imitation of the West Indies soon became a local vogue. The presence of a few imported Caribbean planters and white artisans associated with the sugar-making business further encouraged dreams of converting cane into superprofits. Brown recruited a Cuban sugar-making expert to run his mill, while the mere mention of Jamaica was a shorthand assurance of sugar expertise. Jamaican expatriate Farquhar McRae attained a sort of local agricultural celebrity. His articles extolled the possibilities of Middle Florida sugar planting, recommended high-quality syrup-refining equipment, and simulated on paper the hypothetical plantations "B" and "D." "B" grew only cotton, while "D" made both cotton and sugar, recording a higher return on his investment. Others hopefully asserted that Middle Florida sugar grew more like that of Jamaica than did Louisiana cane. Even after frosts in the late 1820s destroyed several cane crops, writers assured prospective migrants that Florida's climate would permit the production of sugar.
Sugar was merely the most glamorous of the many enticements offered by Jackson and Leon Counties. As Governor William P. DuVal wrote in 1824, the costs of the acquisition of Florida seemed like nothing compared to the benefits: "The interior is, in my opinion, the most valuable Southern country I have ever seen. . . . This region produces Sugar Cane and Sea Island cotton in greater perfection than any other part of the Southern Country." Moving to the bottom line, he concluded: "I have no doubt that this tract of Country [the Middle Florida counties] alone will sell for more than the Florida debt." Florida, boosters claimed, would be a sort of superplantation that combined the advantages of both the United States and the West Indies. Eventually, planters had to give up the dream of re-creating the sugar islands, and sea-island cotton did not became a major local crop until the 1850s. But in the 1820s, no one doubted that plantation production of staple crops would dominate Middle Florida. Florida offered the classic bases for planter wealth: available plantation land and prestigious government offices that provided sinecures to family members while also allowing elite control over economic development. As one local resident suggested in an 1832 toast, it only needed proper attention from the federal government in order to become a state as rich as others in the South: "The Territory of Florida—Uncle Sam's only Southern plantation, it needs ditching and fencing—Let him look to it, if he wants a good crop."
Despite Florida's multiple and complex attractions, planters might not have taken on the task of having the territory ditched and fenced had they been satisfied with the futures they faced in the old states. In 1836, a relative of the numerous planters who moved to Middle Florida from Halifax County in the eastern North Carolina cotton belt recorded his impressions of a visit to a local market town: "Our Stantonburg friends seem in earnest about moving to Mobile. They are selling off very fast and have rendered their stock of dry goods very low. . . . Poor old Tarborough seems to be retreating every day; our feelings and interest say we must leave it very soon." "Feelings" of fear about declining family fortunes intertwined with calculated economic "interest" in the minds of elite men and women in the older Southeastern states. Both urged planters to leave, lest they miss their chance and be stuck in places that were "retreating every day."
Feelings could be powerful spurs to migration, especially given recent threats to elite power. The volatile business cycles that shook the Anglo-Atlantic world after 1818 imparted the urgencies of self-doubt and threatened family honor to many planters' discussions of migration. By the 1820s, Richmond merchant-planters Robert and John Gamble had experienced tremendous ups and downs in the commercial economy. Ruined once by the embargo of 1807-9, they recovered by investing in the James River canal. Then the Panic of 1819, and various hiccups in the business cycle of the 1820s, prostrated the Gamble brothers' fortunes once more. "Their property was once large," said an English friend, "but after too sanguine a speculation, they were wound up in the panic of 1827." Meanwhile, in 1828, North Carolinian Richard Parish wrote to his son William, complaining of his own economic woes. He then mentioned their kinsman Nathan Byrd, a merchant and planter: Byrd was "still in great embarrassment and the prospect ahead is most gloomy." Economic failure could threaten the status of planter men and their families in multiple ways. The term used for overwhelming debt was often, after all, "embarrassment," implying paralyzing, dishonorable exposure. The appearance of economic independence and success—of both self and family—was essential to planter confidence.
Fearful of the embarrassment, planters in the Chesapeake and Carolinas blamed recent decline on the supposedly worn-out soil of their region for their setbacks. This was a time-honored mode of communal self-criticism, particularly in Virginia. There, Mary Randolph, the wife of Francis Eppes, wrote to her cousin in 1827, a year before Eppes would move to Leon County: "These gullied worn out fields, and this unfinished leaking hull of a house, have become more than ever distasteful to both Francis and myself, and we needed little before to render them altogether odious." Her keen sense of family interest recoiled when she looked out at Virginia's fields: "Tobacco is the only thing which can be made here, and after vast labour and expence, in raising and manufacturing the vile weed, and acquiring both skill and judgment in the business, to find still that no profit must be expected, is disheartening indeed." Breast-beating about worn-out soil and "vile weeds" painted Virginia planters in the gray hues of a declining ruling class while also suggesting that the fault lay in the soil rather than those who supervised its tilling. Increasingly, residents and travelers alike saw the Old Dominion as an "old field" of the South: a state grown too sterile to produce staple crops; good only for raising black slaves and white pioneers to clear and settle Uncle Sam's newer plantations.
Fears about soil exhaustion served as metaphors for concerns about declining family power, but after the Panic of 1819 the material basis of planter power—their "interest"—faced clear threats in the form of climatic change and economic stagnation. Soon after the 1793 invention of the cotton gin, farmers learned that cotton would grow in commercial quantities as far north as the southeastern counties of Virginia and the Roanoke Valley of northeastern North Carolina. But in the 1820s, a global decline in temperatures moved the northern limit of cotton cultivation farther south, rendering useless large areas of cultivation. This shift in climate helped drive planters south and west. In addition, a lack of ports stymied commercial growth throughout North Carolina, particularly in the planter-dominated coastal plain. Meanwhile, intensive cotton cultivation since the 1790s had allegedly worn out and gullied fields throughout neighboring South Carolina, and even eastern Georgia.
By the end of the 1820s, the acquisition of Florida, the Creek lands in Alabama and Mississippi, Arkansas, and the Red River lands of Louisiana created an additional pressure on distressed Southeastern planters. Some called it a "fever," while one Florida migrant described it as the "spirit of emigration." A North Carolina woman reported that "Aunt Betsey has broken out with the Florida humours again and is rather disposed to think it the catch." The writer's cousins also wanted to move: "Susan and William are both broken out." To some observers, the scramble to leave the old states seemed irrational, driven by a disembodied spirit that rushed among neighbors like miasmas, the swamp mists blamed for malaria and other fevers. News of departures seemed to seep through neighborhoods, followed by a common symptom: the desire to ensure that one and one's family would not miss the chance at wealth and power in a new land. Letters from friends and relatives who had already moved reiterated and exaggerated the wealth and success available in Middle Florida. After receiving a letter from his uncle Thomas Randall, Thomas Hagner could think of nothing but "Southern advantages" of lawyering around Tallahassee: "I am indeed so charmed with the prospect he holds out, that the good fortune he depicts as the fruits of the proper application of the circumstances which would surround me there, already almost stares me in the face."
The extended family networks common in older plantation areas shaped decisions to migrate. But in the process of exploiting the plantation frontier's potential wealth, wealthy white men came to rely more heavily than ever on the power that came from kinship ties. Few planter men could afford to move by themselves, or to isolate themselves from the influence and assistance of brothers, fathers, adult sons, cousins, and in-laws. Virginian William Nuttall and his father and brothers carefully planned their move to Leon County, and William and his brother James came down to establish a plantation in 1827. When John Branch, Andrew Jackson's first secretary of the navy, appointed his cousin Eli Whitaker as inspector of the navy's live oak forests in 1829, Whitaker's ensuing journey to Florida to look for promising stands of timber for naval vessels was little more than a cover. In reality, he was prospecting for cotton land that Branch and his other Bradford, Whitaker, and Cotten relatives from Halifax County in North Carolina hoped to buy.
Elite white migrants carefully maintained family ties that extended across states, households, and generations. Attention to family began with patriarchs like John Gamble, who stood at the centers of extensive networks of kin. Gamble's numerous relations of the Gamble, Wirt, Goldsborough, and Cabell families, many of whom moved with him to Florida, referred to him simply as "Uncle John," regardless of their specific genealogical relationship to him. Here, too, both feelings and interest combined. The words of such elders, who frequently dispensed political and economic favors to family members, carried considerable emotional and practical weight. Anna Wills assumed that when her father, Cary Whitaker, decided to move to Jackson County, he would open the floodgates: "I am as interested as anybody[,] for if you move you expect to carry all my Brothers and Sisters with you." These older men felt responsible for maintaining the standing of the clans that surrounded them. Cary Whitaker explained why he wanted to set up a Jackson County plantation that he hoped to hand over to his sons: "We make immense sacrafices [sic] for gold. It was the love of money caused me to leave home children and friends, in order to attain it, the main object was to leave something to give my children."
Younger men, in turn, relied upon the advice and assistance offered by their powerful older relatives. Thomas Hagner asked his uncle Thomas Randall, judge of the Middle Florida circuit, for guidance: "I have more than once turned to Florida as the scene of my future trials and labors, and have consulted uncle Thomas on the subject." Once settled in Tallahassee as a successful lawyer, Hagner in turn offered to help establish his brother in Middle Florida: "It may be in my power to do much for him here, and I would like him not to conclude any arrangement until he advises me." Migrant planters certainly calculated the individual benefits of escaping declining plantation economies and settling in booming cotton regions. But complex considerations for both nuclear and extended kin networks also made movement attractive, as one observer of Middle Florida's planters noted in 1830: "The difficult problem of uniting good society with profit, in the old States, they could not solve. They have come out, therefore, to live simply, if not severely at first, to take advantage of cheap and rich lands, and of profitable staples, and thus to rear estates for themselves and children."
Despite the pressures of feeling and interest, planter men and their families sometimes doubted the wisdom of migration to a "severe" frontier. Some elite women who would stay behind feared the loss of their relatives. Mary Ann Gregory cautioned William H. Wills against leaving their North Carolina neighborhood to follow his father-in-law, Cary Whitaker, to Middle Florida. She warned that there was much to lose in "breaking the chain of early acquaintances." The ties of kinship in the older states were close and strong, and some feared that such relationships could not be transplanted to the frontier. Cary Whitaker's daughter Anna Whitaker Wills herself strongly urged her father not to settle in Jackson County: "I do not like that Florida plan at all, I can tell you. I have thought all along mine was the best way." She offered instead a prescription used by many to finance their continued residence in the older plantation states: "Stay home, sell Negroes, pay up. The balance is yours if you have only ten left. . . . Do so [i.e., do as] I say. You may think I have no right to dictate to my father. But if that Father goes away and leaves me, I will have none to dictate to and I want him to stay here where I can see him one in six months if no oftener."
Other women feared disease and Indian attacks. Anna C. Gradner, a daughter of Richard Parish (who moved to Leon County in the late 1820s), worried that Seminoles would harm her relatives: "I should not like to be so near the Indians myself. I think you had all better leave Florida and come back again to No. Carolina it is by far the sweetest place." Anna Wills feared for her father's health in the warmer Florida climate: "I say again I do not like the plan you are too old to brave the southern climate." And Martha Bradford's kinswoman wrote: "Unless it [Tallahassee] proves healthier than it has done lately, I shall not be anxious to move. . . . I would prefer a healthy country to a rich and sickly one, for what is prefferable [sic] to health?"
Women generally assumed that they played at least a secondary role in the decision-making process. Indeed, evidence from Middle Florida suggests that they assumed a more obvious role in discussions about migration than in any of the other political or economic decisions made by planters until the Civil War. Their reactions to the idea of removal usually rested upon the perceived effect of migration upon their relationships to kin and family. Those who thought that they would be able to maintain close ties to family were more likely to support migration, while those women who would be left behind in the old states, or isolated on the frontier, tended to disparage the idea. The women of the Eppes and Randolph families urged the family to move somewhere, and, as Francis Eppes reported, "the Girls prefer Florida." They urged Florida rather than Louisiana upon him with great force. In fact, his sister-in-law Harriet Randolph was in her vehemence "not the least masculine of the set." Florida it would be, then, and meanwhile, Mary Eppes urged her female correspondents to join her in the area of the plantation frontier where she would settle. She gave her cousin Jane Randolph (whose own husband had mentioned emigration) a glowing account of husband Francis Eppes's land-prospecting trip to Middle Florida with Thomas Brown. Mary emphasized that the region was surely "perfectly healthy—Louisiana, whether in the neighborhood of your brother's settlement, or in the Attacapas, [Francis] seems rather averse to from hearing that fevers begin already to prevail."
Certainly plantation mistresses were not immune to "the Florida humours," the "fever" for emigration, or the desire for family power and wealth. Catherine Wirt looked out her Richmond window at the rain and saw in her mind's eye the waterlogged cotton growing on the family's new Middle Florida plantation, "Wirtland," to which she and her mother were preparing to move. "Oh these rains and our poor crops," she wrote, thinking of their need to make enough money to pay off crushing debts. She was concerned about both ties of affection and the need for the family to reverse its economic fortunes when she begged for more frequent letters from Middle Florida. "Remember," she wrote, "how our earthly hopes and affections are gathered up in your dear troupe." Mary Eppes, after arguing for emigration, reported success: "Mama is quite willing to remove, I believe, and the girls [her sisters Harriet and Lucy] wish it exceedingly, and even Papa, who opposed it at first (who would have expected opposition from him, on such a scheme), seems to be coming round." Supporting husband Francis's desire to move, she urged on her initially reluctant father. Both of these men would gain wealth and government office from resettlement in Leon County. Mary would also benefit, though perhaps in more limited ways, from family success.
Planter men sometimes took into consideration the hopes and fears of female kinfolk. They did have similar worries. Many noted their fear that disease haunted the hotter environment of plantation regions farther south. R. H. Bradford, John Branch's elderly uncle, cautioned his nephew: "I confess I am afraid of these climates so near the tropics—the fevers are always formidable." If Florida, like the West Indies, permitted sugar production, perhaps it also was a "white man's grave," replete with endemic "agues" (malaria) and yellow fever. Perhaps, Bradford warned, this "land of promise" also "promises graves to the adventurers who go to try it!" Firsthand reports told potential settlers that malaria and yellow fever could strike throughout the Old Southwest, but disease also served both men and women as a metaphor for broader concerns about the frontier environment. Paired with the fear of illness in planter discussions was often the fear that on Middle Florida's plantation frontier, migrants might degenerate into savagery. Although optimistic that civilization would prevail, "X, Y, and Z" hinted at this issue in 1834: "He who has never tried a new country, cannot anticipate the privations, labour, and disappointments he must encounter in subduing the forests, in rearing a civilized home in the midst of a savage wilderness."
The fear of regression to barbarity made sense in the context of contemporary views about history. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, many educated Anglo-Americans believed that human societies passed through particular stages of complexity and civilization. "The infant state of settlements," wrote one migrant to Middle Florida, "is, like the infant state of the world, a savage or barbarous state." The "states," as this writer had it, ascended in ranks from savagery, to agriculture, to commerce. The exigencies of life on a new frontier could drive men accustomed to living by farming to regress into savage hunters or barbaric herders. Settlers in other areas had already shown a disturbing propensity to exhibit behaviors violent even by the standards of the South, where slavery and the persistence of dueling institutionalized violence. Just as "miasmas" supposedly caused fevers, the unsettled frontier environment caused regression to an earlier stage of historical development.
The apparent loosening of customary modes of social and personal control frightened planters. Middle Florida's first migrant planters complained of the proximity of the Seminoles and the restiveness of slaves until Governor DuVal forced Neamathla out of Leon County. But rashes of advertisements for runaway slaves continued to break out in local newspapers. Even planters' psyches suddenly seemed uncontrollable. Early news of shootouts between Tallahassee political factions prompted one South Carolina observer to complain: "The country may be very fine and its productions such as to offer considerable inducements to emigrants, but the above account does not say very much in favor of the refinement of those who are already there." The writer called Florida "The Rogue's Paradise" and hinted that the climate and the unsettled nature of the plantation frontier might be responsible for such unrefined and uncivilized behavior: "These hot-blooded fellows, perhaps, will kill each other off after a while, and make room for a more peaceable population."
Despite fears of degeneration from within and rebellion by the lower orders, many planters decided in the 1820s and 1830s to leave the older states and move to Middle Florida. These migrants remained confident that they would be able to reconstruct Southeastern models of deference by nonplanter whites and submission by slaves in a new country. Faced with the vision of savagery, Joseph M. White, territorial delegate to Congress, insisted upon imagining instead a Middle Florida that supported planter "interest"—for him, "a happier prospect." He pointed with hope to "the condition of Florida West of the Suwannee [Middle Florida]—filling with emigrants from every portion of the union—Forests falling before the ax of industry and fields of cotton blossoming where they stood—I will shew you a city in the place of a wigwam—and a press inculcating the mild principles of republicanism, where the war whoop was lately heard."
Only time would tell how well the dream of making Middle Florida into an industrious quarter of the civilized world, in which the men of planter families could have both wealth and good society, would work out. But making the decision to migrate to Middle Florida as members of extended families, planters sought to escape what they saw as the depressed possibilities for commercial agriculture in the Chesapeake states and the Carolinas. Middle Florida offered them exciting kinds of power, represented by the myth of the sugar planter, and the reality of a new territory in which wealth and office would be up for grabs among family-based factions. Although some women objected to the disruptions and dangers of migration, the frontier's benefits for families intrigued others. And so elite migrants decided to become "Florida gentlemen," as one woman called Leon County settlers, and prepared to move south and west.
The Process of Planter Migration
Between 1821 and 1840, dozens of wealthy white men from planter backgrounds migrated to Jackson and Leon Counties. Following the same patterns as John Parkhill and his brother-in-law, they traveled south, prospected for land, and then returned to the old states. Planters next assembled family and slaves and headed south in overland caravans. By 1827, planter settlement was in full swing in both counties and did not stop for another decade. Thomas Brown came to Leon County in January 1827 and found that "there were but a few plantations then open and in cultivation." When he returned a year later, the face of the country was changing. New plantations and farms spread through the forest. Benjamin Chaires had begun clearing his plantation "Verdura," due east of Tallahassee, and his numerous sons had settled nearby. Around Lake Miccosukee, men like Robert W. Alston and his sons Willis and Augustus (from Halifax County, North Carolina, by way of Hancock County, Georgia) settled on the rich soil around the water. Meanwhile, in Jackson County, North Carolina planters from the Roanoke River valley filled up the best lands along the Chipola. Others settled on the rich but thickly forested bottomlands along the Chattahoochee and Apalachicola Rivers.
Planters usually migrated with extended families and settled near their relatives, allowing the speedy development of visiting patterns that resembled those of the older states. The Parkhill brothers and William Copland all established their households on Black Creek. The Randolph and Eppes families also settled in the same neighborhood. Just over the Leon County border to the east, in Jefferson County, the Gamble brothers set up their plantations, Waukeenah and Welaunee. Their Richmond relative Abraham Cabell settled only a few miles away. Thomas Randall, married to the Gambles' niece Laura Wirt, bought land and built his house in the same area in 1827. Her father, former attorney general of the United States and noted author William Wirt, bought several hundred acres nearby with the intention of also creating a plantation. He died before he could move to Florida, but his widow, Elizabeth Gamble Wirt, and several of his children did live there during the 1830s.
When the Branch, Bradford, and Whitaker families, an intricately related network of North Carolinians from Halifax County, moved to Middle Florida in the early 1830s, they settled around each other north of Tallahassee. Four Bradford brothers, John Branch, several of his adult sons, sons-in-law, nephews, and three adult Whitaker men bought land, most of it in the two townships north of Tallahassee (in the first range east of the meridian). There, friends and relatives maintained and intensified kinship relations transplanted from the old states. By 1840, at least sixty-eight members of the Branch-Bradford-Whitaker clan lived in their Leon County neighborhood. Jackson County planters also maintained transplanted family ties. In 1836, high land prices in Leon forced Cary Whitaker to purchase in Jackson. But even there he could settle near cousins of the Baker, Roulhac, and other Roanoke Valley families: "I sometimes go and stay the night at Dr. Jno. B. Baker's. . . . I also met with your uncle Simmons. The new comers here from N.C., well independent of others, form a good society." Middle Florida's Achille Murat noted: "A planter never comes alone; he persuades some relatives and friends to emigrate with him, or at least to come and see the country; the greater part of these visitors settle there. In the midst of this infant plantation, he lives happy and tranquil at home."
Among such groups of planters in motion, exchanges of assistance flowed constantly between male relatives and crossed generational lines in both directions. Wealthy settlers relied heavily upon the help of family to realize dreams of cotton fields and sugar houses. North Carolina planter Richard Parish paid off debts incurred by merchant/planter Nathan Byrd in the creation of Byrd's Leon County plantation. Byrd's son Flavius was already married to Parish's daughter, and Parish himself soon moved to Leon County. While elders helped many younger men, William R. Taylor gave his father "the sum of Eight Hundred Dollars, the amount," John Taylor wrote in his will, "which he advanced to his mother and myself to enable us to move to Florida." In addition to the large numbers of family members who actually moved together, kinship networks and business associates who remained in the old states but wanted to invest in the returns of the cotton frontier financed many planters' resettlement. William Nuttall's brothers and father conceived his plantations Chemonie and El Destino as a cooperative venture between the four Nuttall men. While William and James, as noted earlier, went to Florida, the other two stayed in Virginia and supplied them with cash and slaves.
Although cash and capital were often in short supply on the frontier—Francis Eppes sold a family clock from grandfather Thomas Jefferson's Monticello to raise money for his move—many could turn to relatives for both. When John Parkhill needed to pay off a debt of $530 in 1830, he turned to his Richmond-based father-in-law Charles Copland. Copland paid Parkhill's debt in return for a mortgage on a slave named Peter, a couple of mules, and some farm equipment. Although a mortgage may seem less than open-handed generosity, if Parkhill was unable to pay when the note became due, Copland would surely have extended it for him. This was the advantage of dealing with one's kinfolk. Cary Whitaker, who faced numerous difficulties in his attempts to set up his Jackson County plantation (including the mishap of a barge that overturned, sinking his crop of cotton in Apalachicola Bay), borrowed money from his nephew Richard Whitaker. Some six years after moving to Jackson County, Whitaker still had not yet redeemed his note. Although he admitted that "there is a debt I am anxious to pay," he knew that he could put off repaying his nephew still further without fearing a legal recourse.
Acquaintances and business associates from the old states may have been less generous than relatives, but they, too, provided an important source of capital to migrant planters. In the personalistic, chaotic commercial world of the early-nineteenth-century plantation export economy, merely to have access to large-scale credit was a tremendous advantage possessed only by the most successful planters in Leon and Jackson Counties. Before the 1830s, Middle Florida could not claim any lending institutions that could supply the significant amounts needed to buy land or slaves. Instead, well-connected men obtained loans from business acquaintances before migrating south to frontiers parched for credit. Leon County planter and speculator William P. Craig (originally of Maryland) borrowed $13,000 from George Lorimer, a Virginia merchant, in the early 1830s. Craig spent much of the money on increasing the size of his slave force. Soon after, James H. Lorimer, a relative of George Lorimer, moved to Tallahassee. When Craig wanted to put off repaying his original debt, he went to James, who took over the debt to his kinsman in return for a mortgage on Craig's slaves. Thomas Brown obtained loans from business acquaintances in the course of his relocation to Leon County. Brown borrowed money from John Dickenson, which he invested in sugar-making apparatus and a sugar-refining house. Brown mortgaged Dickerson many of his slaves but also mortgaged many of the same ones to Philip Alexander of Virginia and to Horatio P. Vass, a Baltimore merchant related to the Gamble brothers. Brown used these loans to pay off $27,000 of various debts owed to merchants throughout northern Virginia. His sugar-making endeavors failed miserably, but not because any lack of credit kept him out of the "higher game."
After deciding where to settle, and how to raise money, elite migrants wanted to begin establishing their plantations as quickly as possible. Those who arrived in Middle Florida with their slaves before land actually went on sale began clearing the woods before they held legal title. Most planters arrived after government land auctions began (1825 in Leon County, 1827 in Jackson County) and so bought their acres before beginning the process of clearing. And this undertaking was laborious: some settlers reduced the difficulty by girdling the trees; but many had every tree cut down and the biggest roots grubbed up from land intended for cotton cultivation with the plow. Slaves turned next to erecting cabins and enclosing fields. Meanwhile, planters hired white artisans to make many of their cotton gins, cotton presses, and sugar works. Men like Isaac Hay's son also hired themselves out by the day or week to split rails, and dug the wells for most plantations, since slaves were too valuable to risk on such dangerous jobs. White hunters and Indians supplied plantations and stores with necessities and commodities from the forest. Thomas Brown's daughter remembered a Seminole, called Tiger Tail by whites, who sold venison and game to William DuVal.
Most work, however, fell to the hands of enslaved African Americans. "How [else]," asked Achille Murat from his well-stocked Jefferson County plantation Lipona, "are great capitals to be employed in agriculture, in a new country, without slaves?" And great capitals had to produce profits: after clearing and fencing the land, migrant planters hurried to bring crops to market. When Francis Eppes returned to Florida with his Virginia family in 1829, the slaves he had left behind had already planted a large field of cotton. Those migrants with relatives could rely on kinfolk to supervise the clearing and preparation of land. When Eli Whitaker moved down from Halifax County, North Carolina, in late spring of 1835, his son Richard had already superintended planting operations on both of their plantations: "I have about 60 acres planted in cotton." Eli, seeing this fine beginning, rented more land and added to his cotton in cultivation by the middle of May. The sharing of labor and supervision encouraged Francis Eppes first to send his laborers to build cabins for his Randolph relatives, and then to borrow their slaves for field labor.
As plantations emerged from the woods, cotton production soared. Jackson County planters had brought bales of the staple to sale before Tallahassee was founded. In 1826, the Pensacola Gazette reported, "During the past week a considerable quantity of cotton came into the market and among that particularly entitled to notice were two lots raised upon the Chipola and in the Holmes Valley." From a trickle in 1824, by 1828, Apalachicola shipped 55,000 bales of cotton from the Chattahoochee/Apalachicola River valley, an area that included both west Georgia and Jackson County. In 1828, a local editor reported that Jackson County planters, dissatisfied with the limitations of the harbor at Apalachicola, proposed to build a canal to link the Chipola River to St. Andrew's Bay. Leon County schemers founded the towns of Magnolia and Port Leon on the St. Marks River to ship the produce of Leon and Jefferson Counties. Others planned canals, or tried to obtain government contracts to clear rivers, all seeking to link cotton and sugar producers with their markets.
By 1830, most of these planter dreams appeared to be bearing early fruit. A class of powerful families who relied on slave labor to produce export crops was emerging in Jackson and Leon Counties (see Table A.2). Twenty-three households in the former county and forty-one in the latter reported owning more than twenty slaves. By 1840, these numbers had increased still further. In Leon, ninety-four white households reported enough slaves to put them in the planter category. Jackson's 1840 U.S. Census was taken incorrectly and does not report individual slaveholdings. But the majority of an 1838 territorial census survives and lists thirty planters in the county: almost 8 percent of the white households, up from 6 percent eight years earlier.
In the early 1830s, economic differentiation among whites in Middle Florida grew out of the resources—enslaved laborers, access to credit, knowledge of the commercial world, and political connections—that the most successful brought with them. The planter men and women who moved to Jackson and Leon Counties sought much for themselves and their families. Thus one observer claimed, "The manners, the intelligence, and the knowledge of the old States are to be found in this new territory. Many who have felt the influence of the best society in Europe and America, are to be found among its planters. . . . Wealth, however, is not their sole object; the comforts and humanities, if not the elegancies of civil life, they endeavour to catch by the way in their pursuit of ulterior objects. These views have brought together, particularly in the Tallahassee district, an improved and improving class." The accumulation of wealth and political power would allow planters, early in the life of territorial Florida, to create a society and a political economy designed around their own interests and desires. Within a mere five years, Middle Florida already began to look something like the superplantation envisioned in the early 1820s by William DuVal and others. Cotton and sugar grew to maturity in fields free from Seminoles, and enslaved African Americans harvested them. Bales, bags, and barrels rolled forth from new ports into the hulls of ships bound for Liverpool and New York. Meanwhile, the existence of transplanted ties of family assured the nervous that they were civilized rather than savage. Still, economic power was not the only component of feelings and interest; nor the only object sought by those who called themselves "men of capital and respectability" on the move. Seeking other kinds of distinction, planter men strutted before other white men on the stage of politics, like masters before slaves. And even while this "improved and improving class" sought to tame the forests, themselves, and anyone else in the territory, less wealthy whites like Isaac Hay were also filtering south into Jackson and Leon. They came with a different vision for the frontier, one that would ultimately bring them into conflict with planters.